On the streets of Kabul, Turkish soldiers go on patrol, side by side with the British, an Islamic star and crescent on the shoulder of their NATO-issue uniforms. In Ankara, Turkish officers take lessons in local Afghan politics before assuming command of the international peacekeeping mission this summer. Meanwhile, technicians at the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey work to upgrade their radar facilities--just in case they're needed for a U.S. air assault on Baghdad.
Quietly and without fanfare, the Turks are demonstrating that on the international stage, at least, they are a full member of the Western world's post-September 11 alliance against terror. The West tends to take that friendship for granted. It shouldn't. Turkey is heading for a major crisis in its relations with the European Union, and that could in turn trigger a major rethink of just who its real friends are--and where its best strategic interests lie.
Turkey certainly isn't about to sign up to the Axis of Evil, however bad relations with Europe might get. But as the EU crafts a new constitution governing its enlargement, and as it threatens to ignore Turkish objections by accepting just the Greek part of the divided island of Cyprus into its club, Ankara is understandably looking on with growing dismay. Before long, in fact, Turkey just may decide that the EU's demands for membership are too exacting, that Brussels is being too high-handed and that other regional allies might prove less troublesome and more rewarding. At bottom, the problem is that the EU is dealing with Turkey as though it were an impoverished Eastern European nation with no option but to go along with Brussels's every whim. That's a big mistake. "You can't treat Turkey like Slovakia," says Karen Fogg, EU ambassador to Ankara. "You can't say, 'Let us show you how to become like us'." Trying to do so, she believes, will only breed resentment.
Indeed, resentment is already festering. Just listen to the remarks of a powerful member of Ankara's ruling military, made recently with a calculated intent largely lost on Western capitals. "Turkey has never received any support or understanding from the EU," said Maj. Gen. Tuncer Kilinc after listening to an anti-EU speech at Ankara's War Academy. Voicing the bitterness of many among Turkey's political establishment over what they see as the EU's unfair and patronizing attitudes, he went on to say that "Turkey needs new allies. We should engage in a search which includes Russia and Iran." If ever there was a wake-up call, this was it. For Kilinc is nothing less than the secretary-general of Turkey's National Security Council, the joint military-civilian body that is the country's supreme de facto authority. Historically, as go the Army and the security council, so goes Turkey.
Ever since the days of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and a zealous modernizer, Turks have lived under the comfortable assumption that sooner or later they would join Europe, completing a westward journey the Turks began two millennia ago as Asian nomads. But now, as they've grown closer to Europe, many Turks are having second thoughts. Most still agree that they would be better off joining Europe. But they don't like being dictated to, and they aren't sure Europe wants them anyway. For their part, Europeans seem oblivious to the growing schism in relations. Preoccupied with enlargement to the East, diverted by the Balkans and the Baltics and the Middle East, they seem utterly unaware of the equally serious problem brewing on their Asian doorstep. Europe assumes that Turkey, like others before it, will wait patiently to join its club, dutifully making whatever social and political changes the grandees of Brussels deem to be appropriate. That may be far less true than it once was.
General Kilinc did not mean to imply that Turkey might cut its ties with Europe. That, says one leading pro-Europe parliamentarian, would be "as ridiculous as Mexico turning its back on the U.S." But between the extremes of a member of the club and a wayward ally, there's a lot of room for trouble. If it is rebuffed by Europe, it's not hard to imagine Turkey turning to other friends elsewhere, as Kilinc so bluntly warned. Patching up relations with Iraq, it could downscale its hitherto unquestioned allegiance to the United States and its NATO allies. Indeed, last week Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit warned Israel that its actions in the occupied territories amounted to a "genocide" against Palestinians. Could this be a disturbing new sign that Turkey might begin to reconsider its historical (and, in the Muslim world, almost unique) friendship with Israel? And if so, what would this mean for America's strategy of unseating Saddam Hussein, which it seems willing to support despite deep reservations? All these matters hang in the balance. And Europe, by mishandling and underestimating the challenge, could well blow it.
Turkey has been preparing to join Europe ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. "There are many nations, but only one civilization," Ataturk declared after the debacle of World War I, when victorious Allied powers occupied Istanbul and created the modern map of the Middle East. Almost singlehandedly, he dragged Turkey toward the West. He decreed that Turks abandon the fez for European fedoras. He introduced the Latin alphabet, suppressed the wearing of the veil and moved Turkey's capital to Ankara, which he set about turning into a model European city--as well as imprisoning anyone who didn't want to be "progressive" and "enlightened."
Now the Turkish government thinks it can use similarly autocratic methods to decree its way into the EU. But Ankara seriously underestimates the wholesale social and political change that Europe expects. Brussels wants Turkey to transform itself into a "functional democracy," with all that entails in terms of throwing out repressive laws on freedom of expression, granting cultural rights to minorities like the Kurds and getting the Turkish military to abandon its de facto seniority to civilian governments. In short, Turkey thinks it can get away with piecemeal reforms; a la Ataturk, Ankara plans to order another change of hats. The EU wants to change what's inside people's heads.
Human rights will be at the heart of this discord. A recent flap highlights the gulf between the two sides. Last month the EU offered its support to Turkey's 12 million Kurds, who seek to broadcast in their mother tongue on nationwide radio. They also want the right to learn Kurdish in state schools. A storm of protest erupted, with Turkish nationalists accusing the EU of encouraging Kurdish separatism and interfering in the country's internal affairs. Ismail Cem, Turkey's foreign minister, even accused Europeans of behaving like "colonialists"--and he's the most pro-EU politician in the country. In the end, the government promised to allow the state radio to air a few hours of Kurdish-language programs a day. For Turkey, it was a huge concession. For the EU, it was peanuts.
An even bigger controversy involves the governing role of the Turkish military. Turkey's General Staff still sees itself as a kind of big brother to the country's elected politicians. The Army has deposed four governments over the past 40 years--the last time in 1997, when it ousted Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan for being too Islamist. But there's a problem with challenging the Army's supremacy: almost no one inside Turkey wants to. The military is far and away the most revered and respected institution in the country, regardless of political stripe. Ahmed Dogan, a grocer in downtown Istanbul, speaks for almost everyone when he lauds the Army as the guarantor of Turkey's stability and future. "They are honest," he says, "and think of the good of the country rather than themselves." Yet to hear Europeans tell it, the Army is an "obstacle," "old-fashioned" and "blinkered." If Turkey is to join the EU, the Eurocrats say, the military's leading role must go.
Ultimately, Europe may be right. But that hasn't stopped Turks from asking another logical question: we may want to be in the EU, but are we willing to let Brussels dictate the character of our state? A recent opinion poll showed that 74 percent of Turks still favor joining the EU, but ask about individual steps necessary to get there and the picture is different, says Erol Manisali, professor of economics at Istanbul University and a prominent Euro-skeptic. "Most people are in favor of going to the moon," he scoffs. "But that doesn't mean it's realistic." Turks have been blind to the implications of joining Europe. Now, at long last, he says, "they are beginning to see what the EU means. The EU wants us to become like them. But Turkey is not Europe, it's not Asia, it's always been something else."
Europe, too, has decisions to make. It has yet to fully debate whether it really wants Turkey in. It's one thing for Brussels to absorb the 10 candidates from Eastern Europe, where there is a widely shared culture. But admitting Turkey would challenge the very nature of the Union, which former German chancellor Helmut Kohl once described as a "civilization project"-- and some Turks, like nationalist MP Sevket Yahnici, fear is a "Christian club." Within 15 years Turkey's population will be larger than Germany's, making it potentially the largest country in the EU and, according to new voting rules, the country with the most votes in the European Commission. The EU's borders would stretch to Iran and Iraq, meaning that Europe would officially begin farther east than Baghdad. The past two years have been a kind of honeymoon period for Turkey, with powerful voices (notably Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and Greece's dov- ish Foreign Minister George Papandreou) speaking in favor of Turkey's membership in the EU. But the conservative German chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber speaks for many (if not most) in strenuously opposing it. Such sentiments, long suppressed, could come to the fore this summer, when Brussels must decide whether to admit Cyprus into the Union.
Some experts have likened the prospect to a "train wreck." Clearly, the geopolitical stakes are huge, not just for Turkey but for the region. Consider Iraq. Until the gulf war, it was Turkey's biggest trading partner. Ankara would like to restore strong ties with Baghdad, not just for business but also to sandwich the Kurds of southeast Turkey and northern Iraq and squash any secessionist moves. Culturally, Turkey may look to the west. But its economic and political interests are large to the east and north. Turkey's energy all comes from Asia--gas from Russia and Iran, oil from Iraq and soon from Azerbaijan through a new pipeline to be built from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. And Turks have been building economic and cultural ties with their ethnic cousins in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, which are dotted with Turkish supermarkets, hotels and universities.
America finds itself caught in the middle. The United States has backed Turkey's bid for the EU. But at the same time it has done little to ease Turkey's current economic crisis by, for instance, raising quotas for Turkish exports like textiles. While Turkey values its U.S. alliance, it doesn't get a lot out of it. To the contrary, it lost an estimated $50 billion in trade with Iraq after the gulf war. And last year the United States refused a $700 million deal to upgrade Turkish tanks because Washington didn't trust the Turks to keep the technology secret. As a result, Ankara has turned to Israel for hardware, and agreed to joint exercises with the Russian Army--the nuts and bolts of a closer political relationship.
Cold-shouldering turkey would be shortsighted for both the United States and Europe. If the Bush administration seeks to drum up regional support for a war on Saddam, or a peace plan for Palestine, it will need Turkey onboard. It will also need all the leverage it can get to overcome Turkey's fears that a war will wreck its tourism industry and encourage Kurdish separatism. Turkey has already moved closer to the Arab fold than to the United States on Israel. Protests by Islamist and left-wing groups have erupted in Turkish cities, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, and have prompted Ankara to downplay (though not yet drop) its traditional support of Israel. It's worth noting that when Ecevit labeled the Israeli actions a "genocide," he was speaking not off the cuff but in a formal address.
Preoccupied with its own affairs, Europe hasn't come up with a coherent strategy for dealing with Turkey. Not only has Brussels failed to debate the challenges it presents, but it appears not to be fully considering the opportunities it offers. This is particularly evident in Germany, where 2 million Turks live as guest workers. Edmund Stoiber, among others, plays to a widespread anti-immigration sentiment in his campaign to unseat Schroder. Yet these same fears arose years ago, when Portugal, Spain and Greece joined the European Community. Then there was no mass labor migration. Indeed, Germans may come to wish there would be if Turkey joins, if only for demographic reasons. As everyone knows, Europe's working population is shrinking fast--and a decade from now cheap labor from places like Turkey will be desperately needed to keep the EU's economy humming.
As Europe's leaders gather in Brussels this year to debate a new constitution and enact the rules and regulations governing expansion, they might do well to rethink their all-or-nothing attitudes toward Turkey. The slavish fixation on insisting that every member conform to an idealized norm could be self-defeating. For the truth, ultimately, may well be that countries like Turkey can never be fully European.
Perhaps a more enlightened policy would be for Europe to soften its rules at the Union's edges, once the next round of expansion is done, and recognize that the periphery of Europe won't be just like the core. As it stands now, Turkey may officially be a candidate for European membership--but it receives no structural funds to help undertake reforms. It is in the European Customs Union and is therefore bound to open its markets to EU produce, like any full EU member. Yet it receives none of the subsidies that the poorer members of the Union receive, nor does it benefit from the EU's external trade deals, such as with North Africa or the United States.
If Europe comes up with a "third way," giving Turkey some of the benefits of membership and rewarding it for how far it has come, rather than constantly reminding it of how far it has to go, a crisis in relations might be averted. If not, the country might just decide, as Ataturk phrased it when he was fighting Allied occupiers after WWI, that a "Turk should be master in his own land"--and go its own way. Because unlike most aspirants to Europe, Turkey has other options.